The U-Bahn

In a memorable scene from the movie Crocodile Dundee, “Crocodile” has just arrived in New York City from the Australian Outback and is walking down a busy street. Ignorant of city ways, he greets everyone he meets with a hearty “G’day!” and a tip of his hat. Of course, no one responds.

And so it is on the Munich subway, the U-Bahn. When the rush hour crowds use the U-Bahn, exchanging even simple pleasantries with one’s fellow passengers could quickly become an exhausting exercise. Born of this understandable impersonality, passengers fail to acknowledge one another even absent the crowds.

When I stepped on board the U-1 train at the Mangfallplatz Station a few mornings ago to ride it into the city, there were only a handful of fellow passengers. True to custom, I was barely aware of them. The one I do remember, because of what was about to transpire, was a woman who took a seat at the end of the car a few rows from me. There was nothing unusual about her: she was young, had dark hair, of average height and weight. Once seated, I was quickly lost in my own thoughts.

As the train rolled on, I absentmindedly noted that she had retrieved a cell phone from her bag and was reading from its screen. But soon, from the recess of my own thoughts, I became aware that there was something out of the ordinary about her. Were those tears streaming down her face?

Such a public display of so private an emotion in that setting was jarring. At the same time it was profoundly moving. A wave of sympathy surged through me almost immediately and before I had any time to consider what might have caused her tears, tears were distorting my own vision.

My first thought was to comfort her, but also realizing that we were two strangers on the subway and her grief was none of my business, I realized that any attention from me would be outside the bounds of etiquette. I could only wonder what might be at the root of her sadness.

Embarrassed that someone would see my tears, I began to wipe them away. In this moment I could see that she, too, was wiping away tears. And then, in what must have been a momentarily perplexing sight for her, she looked up and noticed my tears. There we sat for a few seconds, two tearful strangers, facing each other across the vast distance that separates subway passengers.

She must have understood that my tears were tears of sympathy for she soon managed a brief, tight-lipped smile of what I imagined to be acknowledgement or possibly even gratitude. I managed a smile of embarrassment. Then we both returned to our private worlds – two strangers, soon to be parted, never to meet again.

What a peculiar creature the human animal is. My sympathy for her was immediate and automatic. Our fates could not have been less intertwined and yet I felt an overwhelming urge to help her. Contrast this with what I had recently been reminded of on our visit to Dachau – the suffering imposed on those prisoners by their captors and the indifference to their plight by the population at large. Human “nature” is such a bewildering mixture of compassion and cruelty, generosity and exploitation, rationality and instinct.